During the “The Deal on Development” session at Realscreen West in Santa Monica, California on Thursday (June 9), senior executives from across the non-fiction sector focused their lens on the new reality of development and where the industry is headed.
Moderated by Nonfiction Producers Association GM John Ford, the panel session determined that the days of buying series spontaneously in a room have slowed dramatically, if not vanished completely.
“I do remember when you could walk into a room with a sizzle tape and sell from that, but what I’ve been seeing from the last couple of years is you’ll walk in with a piece of talent and with a tape, and still get an offer for paper development, casting, presentation, piloting and then series, and now [you're] looking 18 months out,” explained Gil Goldschein, chairman and CEO of Bunim/Murray Productions.
But in an environment in which everything is moving at a rapid pace, particularly in the media landscape, the answer, Goldschein says, is not to “develop this to death” and hope that the program will work out 18 months later.
“What we’re not talking about here is there’s this process where we’ll want to pick this up and we like it, and we’re waiting because [the producer's] representation is also waiting for other people to see if [another network] wants it and we’re all playing this waiting game that’s going on,” said Howard Lee, executive VP of development and production at TLC and GM of Discovery Life Channel. “At that point, something has to happen – a deadline or something, because the waiting game process is really slowing us down.”
Barry Poznick, president of unscripted television at MGM Television, laid out a detailed example of the amount of legwork that most recently went into bringing a game show to a cable network’s schedule.
“It was a year of development, but they were right, we had to get it to a place where it was perfect,” Poznick recalls. “If we would have made the show six months earlier, it wouldn’t have worked. It is a way better show because of everything we went through, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes you have all the pieces together and it’s one of the other factors.”
“We’re accountable, too. There are politics, financial issues and a lot of programming things going on behind the scenes that sometimes we do have to put you in a holding pattern because there are things going on,” Lee admitted.
DJ Nurre, EVP of programming and development for 3 Ball Entertainment, shared a pitch tape for a sports competition project featuring Dallas Cowboys football star Michael Irvin which aimed to give young hopefuls a second chance at joining the NFL. The show eventually became 4th and Long for Spike and the tape illustrated the importance of talent, pacing and giving the network the most complete yet captivating picture of what you want your project to be.
David Eilenberg – president of ITV Entertainment at ITV America – said he doesn’t necessarily see reverse engineering a project from network communicated needs as a bad way of developing a series.
“If Howard [Lee] says he wants [something based in] Minnesota, my job, I believe, as a client-focused producer is to come back with three pitches from Minnesota and see if one of them works,” he stated. “That’s time and labor intensive to do it, but I do think that’s the way the marketplace is going to be working, so why not start from what they’re saying they want?”
Alternatively, he suggested that content producers of today can look to Silicon Valley for innovation in the field of television, by essentially shipping the product – a television series – out to consumers, receiving feedback, refining the product and then sending it back out for consumption.
“We have a responsibility to ourselves to figure out how to incubate [series], because if you’re the Fine Brothers [14 million YouTube followers], and you have an idea called React [6.2 million followers], do you want to put it into [the traditional linear] pipeline, or on YouTube and then end up in Forbes?” said Eilenberg.
As a result, networks are now beginning to look at using their secondary and digital platforms as a way to monetize and test development outside of the traditional focus group setup.
“I’m very encouraged by that. As a producer, I would take that audiences feedback 100 times out of 100,” Eilenberg noted.
(From left to right: MGM Television’s Barry Poznick, TLC’s Howard Lee, 3 Ball Entertainment’s DJ Nurre, and ITV Entertainment’s David Eilenberg. Photo by Nelson Blanton)